Pioneer Square’s Swanky New Cocktail Bar Impresses

But it’s tough for the drinks and food to live up to the decor.

Outfitted in art nouveau and art deco splendor, and with a slightly Havana feel to boot, The Sovereign (119 First Ave. S., 257-4655) is nonetheless easy to miss. But once you descend into the underground Pioneer Square spot, its charms reveal themselves. Terrazzo-tiled floors, ornate tin ceilings, period wallpaper, vintage light fixtures, leather club chairs, and bright green palm leaves all contribute to the cool, retro vibe, one distinctive from any other spot in the city.

However, I was surprised—and frankly a bit disappointed—by the brevity of the craft-cocktail list, expecting a more expansive menu on par with places like Rob Roy. Instead, there are just nine libations, though in fairness, they are certainly well-conceived and interesting. A Black on Gold unites house hot-smoked bourbon and crystallized ginger, which packs a punch, with the lighter elements of apricot and lemon. The Dickety Three, in contrast, is an easy, breezy drink that manages to soften the roughness of vodka with bubbles while bringing a subtle sourness via a pear/thyme shrub and a bite from bitters. It’s like a more complex but still easy-on-the-palate version of, perhaps, a French 75. Their house seasonal punch, served in a fancy cut-crystal glass (you can imagine a matching crystal punch bowl sitting on a table at a party in the ’50s) was not as festive as I’d hoped; it’s a citrusy gin concoction with a bit of allspice—not enough to give it a punch-worthy designation to my mind.

The Sovereign does serve food, but it’s mainly a bread-and-spread affair, with either slices of baguette and various accompaniments (“Table Bread”) or open-faced style sandwiches (“Baguettes”). They do serve deviled eggs, though, and the ones with peppers and pancetta perched on top are the way to go. For just a taste, there’s two pieces for $4, but I’d go for six of them for $10. They’re that good. It’s like bacon and eggs with a briny blast of pickled peppers.

From the Table Bread section of the menu, we tried the Faux Gras, a mixture of walnut, lentil, and mushroom that doesn’t really taste anything like foie gras but that does have a pleasant, definitively Thanksgiving-stuffing flavor to it. As mild-mannered as that is, so is the smoked-sardine butter, with the smoked spices aggressively briny. Order it only if you truly love sardines.

Among the Baguettes, the Merguez sausage is decent, though I couldn’t detect the presence of the leek confit and the meat itself is rather lackluster. Perhaps they should cut back on the piperade, a beguiling concoction of pickled peppers, onion, and tomatoes that, while furiously delicious, can easily override less-assertive ingredients. I did, however, love the Onion baguette, slathered with Beecher’s Flagship Cheddar, house crème fraiche, and tarragon. Tarragon can be such a finicky herb to work with–its soapy, anise-y notes often difficult to blend—but against the tangy cheese and the luxurious crème fraiche, it becomes a lovely antidote. Under Marmites (a reference to the yeasty British spread), we went with the Artichoke, a creamy concoction of chopped artichoke hearts with house peppers and mornay (a béchamel sauce with Gruyère). Served warm, it too gets dipped or spread on bread, and does a good job of balancing the brightness of artichoke with the decadence of mornay.

I get that the kitchen is going for easy, prepped offerings with little cooking on the spot required, and there’s plenty here to enjoy. However, I wish it wasn’t such a bread-dependent menu. By night’s end, I felt I’d consumed my carb load for the week, and everything kind of blurred together in my mind. I would have enjoyed some more stand-alone snacks to be popped into the mouth, no spreading involved (like the deviled eggs).

At the Sovereign, more than the drinks or the food, it’s the decor I’ll come back for—and I’m not sure it’s enough of a pull to get me down to Pioneer Square on a weekend night more than occasionally. But with more inventive cocktails and a slightly less narrow menu, I’d happily consider “regular” status.